Broccoli the 'miracle-food' is only part of the arsenal

EATING WELL

April 26, 1994|By Colleen Pierre, R.D. | Colleen Pierre, R.D.,Special to The Sun

Is broccoli the oat bran of the '90s?

Last week I asked two different groups if oat bran lowers cholesterol. Perplexed faces stared back at me. Was this a trick question? Who even bothers with oat bran anymore?

Now broccoli is the "miracle food du jour."

Johns Hopkins researchers recently published study results showing sulforaphane, an element found in broccoli, reduces breast cancer in rats. This is good news, indeed.

Then the typical American thing happened. One of the researchers reportedly said folks should eat broccoli every day to be safe. Please. Even if you love broccoli, how long will it be until you can no longer stand the sight of it?

Sulforaphane is found in all cruciferous (cabbage family) vegetables, including cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower and mustard greens, so you do have some other choices.

But even more important is our growing awareness that cancer is a multi-step process, and that different cancer fighters act at various stages of the process. They also come naturally prepackaged in a wide variety of plant-based foods.

Sulforaphane is just one in a group of compounds called "phytochemicals" found naturally in fruits, vegetables, herbs and grains now being explored for their disease-fighting ability.

Ellagic acid from apples and strawberries, benzyaldehyde from figs, carotenoids from pumpkin and spinach, D-limonene from oranges, bromelain from pineapple and lycopenes from tomatoes also appear to fight cancer.

Beyond cancer, cynarin from artichokes may help lower cholesterol, capsaicin from chili peppers may improve asthma and bronchitis, and psoralens from celery may help prevent psoriasis. This list goes on and is quite long.

Further, there is an enormous body of evidence that the anti-oxidants beta carotene and vitamins C and E, found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, also fight cancer and heart disease.

A recent study of Finnish men who smoke was expected to show that beta carotene supplements would reduce cancer rates. Disappointingly, it did not.

In the scientific process, one study does not negate an entire body of work. But it does encourage researchers to look again to see what's been overlooked. It's not unlikely they'll find beta carotene is not effective alone but works cooperatively with other elements in food.

Broccoli is, indeed, a wonder food, high in beta carotene and vitamin C as well as sulforaphane. But beyond broccoli, many plant foods contain both anti-oxidants and phytochemicals.

Strawberries contain both vitamin C and ellagic acid. Oranges contain both vitamin C and D-limonene.

Apparently there is no single nutrient warrior in the anti-cancer crusade. The truth is even better. We have an entire army of elements from plant-based foods fighting cancer on our behalf.

People who eat more fruits and vegetables have lower cancer rates, so the National Cancer Institute recommends we eat a minimum of five servings a day of fruits and vegetables combined. The bad news is we average only 3 1/2 servings. How strange in a nation desperately seeking the answer to cancer. Perhaps the news seems just too good to be true. We're not condemned to a life of eating nothing but broccoli. We can indulge in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and herbs and really enjoy this prescription for good health.

And as for oat bran, it does lower cholesterol. So do rice bran and corn bran. They are part of the "whole" you get in whole grains. Other foods lower cholesterol too, including beans, fruits and vegetables, the same foods that help prevent cancer. What a great two-for-one sale!

By now the message should have a familiar ring: To fight both cancer and heart disease, eat a wide variety of plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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